US psychologists recently demonstrated that showing parents the harms caused by vaccine-preventable infectious diseases is more effective than providing scientific information to refute anti-vaccination attitudes.
In fact, the psychologists found that providing scientific information could backfire or be ineffective with vaccine sceptics or those with less favourable attitudes to vaccines. Sceptics tend to discount or ignore evidence contrary to their existing beliefs, and it can lead them to look for more information to support what they already believe.
The evidence for the efficacy of immunisation is indisputable — witness the eradication of smallpox from the world and near eradication of polio, which remains endemic in just three countries: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.
There is also plenty of evidence on the control of other vaccine-preventable infectious diseases. Distinguished Australian scientist Dr Brian Feery provided one of the first decade-by-decade summaries of deaths in Australia from common preventable diseases from 1926 to 1995, and related these to the decade in which the relevant vaccine was introduced, which has since been updated.
The last outbreak of polio in Australia was in 1961‒1962. This dreaded condition has not been seen in Australia by those born after this date. It is a similar pattern for diphtheria.
The markedly low incidence of other vaccine-preventable infections in Australia such as measles, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) epiglottitis and meningitis, and congenital rubella, for instance, means young parents have not seen what these conditions can do to vulnerable children. They cannot comprehend the suffering, complications and sometimes death of children who are infected with these diseases.
Add this lack of firsthand experience to the confirmed scepticism of parents with anti-vaccination views about scientific data, and it is easy to see why doctors struggle to convince these parents that vaccination is an essential protection for their children.
If doctors are faced by such scepticism, they could ask whether parents have seen cases of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus or polio, and what they know about the impact of these diseases on children. Would they recognise symptoms of these diseases in their children?
Because vaccines have been so successful in preventing many infectious diseases, the only practical way to show parents these diseases is through audio-visual recordings of actual clinical illnesses.
“Protect your baby for life”, an educational video first produced in the 1990s, is a good starting point. You could show it to sceptical parents and then ask: “Would you really run the risk of your child suffering like this?”
The ball is then truly in their court.
Professor Clem Boughton is Emeritus Professor at the University of NSW and was formerly chairman and senior physician at the Division of Infectious Diseases at Prince Henry Hospital, Sydney.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: The public education video titled “Protect your baby for life”, which briefly profiled particular infectious diseases so parents were better informed about immunising their children, was made possible by Professor Boughton and his colleagues from the Department of Infectious Diseases, Prince Henry and Prince of Wales hospitals and the University of NSW. The Sydney School of Medicine, University of Notre Dame Australia, digitised the video so that it can be accessed online. Permissions were granted by the patients and/or their parents featured in the video.